Taking Notes Will Make You More Productive

For many, the last time you took serious notes was back in College.  But most recently we have seen how people at all levels have found the art of taking notes Can take center stage.  Former FBI Director James Comey’s notes of key events and interactions in the White House became a vital element of the impeachment hearings against President Trump.

Most of us won’t be in meetings with the President where your notes will play a role in history, but whether you are a journalist, student, or work in an office, being able to record important elements of conversations. 

But no one teaches how to take effective notes. 

Taking notes became an essential part of my personal and professional life. Unless I’m writing something down, I have a difficult time remembering important developments. If I am in a meeting, my mind can wander as notes keep me focused. 

My notes have helped me remember important conversations and tasks. It even helped me deal with a legal matter in which my lawyer was impressed with the details I recorded from various discussions over a long period. They have helped me hold others accountable for promises made. 

If you want to develop an effective note-taking habit that will help you, you must first commit to carrying a notebook or some other device in which you can record your thoughts quickly. 

Some people use Field Guides, Moleskines, or similar notebooks. I have a small paper pad in my wallet. Others use email, or Siri to send themselves messages or even leave themselves a voice mail. 

Besides random ideas that come into your head, you should take notes in one on one meetings with your superiors or colleagues. You will want to take notes in meetings with clients. Write down whenever you hear something that you want to remember, or you may think it may be helpful to you in the future. You’ve probably seen colleagues take notes on their laptops or tablets. Use whatever works best for you. 

On occasion, if I am in a one-on-one meeting or having a conversation at lunch, it may not be easy or appropriate to take notes on the spot. In those instances, I will make notes as soon as I can. That’s what Comey did after meeting with the President. 

What you put down on paper depends on you. The most important thing is that you develop a technique to organize your thoughts. Some people use an outline format, although sometimes that structure can be cumbersome and hinder your ability to pay attention. You can also make simple lists of ideas that you want to remember. Visual thinkers may choose to make a mind map. The Cornell method is another popular style. The paper is divided into three sections: a margin to the left, a summary section on the bottom, and a main note section. Use the main notes section to take notes during a meeting.  Use the cues section to review your notes. After your meeting, write down things you’ll need to remember. You can also use this section for vocabulary words and study questions. In the summary segment at the bottom, write a summary of your notes. This is where you will highlight the main points.

Cornell style notes look good and are easy to review. That’s why they are more popular for students rather than office workers. 

A journalist I knew someone had learned shorthand and used the symbols to rapidly take verbatim quotes quickly. 

It doesn’t matter how accurate every word is transcribed because it is best only to write down what is important and interesting. 

As part of your structure, consider using symbols to highlight special items that will need followup.   If I am assigned a task or need to followup with someone at a meeting, I will enclose it in a box.  If I want to remember a task that I have assigned to someone else, I circle it. If I don’t understand something and need to followup later, I put a question mark in the left column. And if I want to remember a quote or remember something for later use, I underline it. Your system can vary, but having special symbols will help when you have to review your notes later. 

Following many group meetings, I will usually prepare a summary that I share with participants shortly after the session concludes. I lost important ideas, action plans, and assignments. I invite participants to share corrections or other ideas that need to be recorded. These emails become invaluable to me and for others when your memory fails. 

In a University setting, you may see students recording the audio of their lectures so they can pay attention and prepare notes later.  Some applications (i.e., One Note, Evernote,) that can be loaded on your laptop can record audio from your meetings.  If you do this, it is a good idea to tell participants what you are doing and how the recordings will be used. About a dozen states require each participant to give their consent. 

Once you have completed your notes and summary, you should add assignments to your task list and follow up on other items you have highlighted. 

Finally, make sure to keep your notes in a safe place where you will be able to access them quickly.

More on that in a future post. 

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